As economic and population declines continue to plague shrinking cities, a number of them are adopting greening plans to combat the vacant land and blight problems.  Two of those plans are Rochester’s Project Green: From Blight to Bright (soon to be made public) and Detroit’s Leaner, Greener Detroit (Nov. 2008).  They all stress greening strategies, but what are some of the plans’ strengths and weaknesses?  And, perhaps more importantly, what can other shrinking cities take from these plans when they craft theirs?


Rochester’s Project Green examines different housing and demolition scenarios to tackle its housing crisis, provides vacant land strategies, and proposes green corridors that reflect the historic streetcar routes.  Beside the brief mentions of parks, land banking, land leasing for various uses, and energy generation as vacant land strategies, the plan devotes much attention to community gardens.  The green corridors would connect neighborhoods and downtown, enhance recreation opportunities, provide wildlife habitats, and manage stormwater.


Leaner, Greener Detroit emphasizes urban form, sustainable transportation, economic development strategies, urban agriculture, and sustainable energy.  The proposed urban form involves enhancing the urban core and reconfiguring the use of land to promote high-density, mix-use and mix-income developments.  Sustainable transportation, which includes transit, bicycle, and pedestrian modes, would link neighborhoods and land uses.  The economic development section lays out a framework for a 10-year economic development plan into three phases that capitalize on human capital, existing and future assets.  The Detroit plan wants to bring to scale urban agriculture so it can provide economic and workforce development, on top of localized food production.  The plan also establishes phases to achieve the urban agriculture goals.


It appears the Rochester plan functions like a traditional greening plan, where as the Detroit plan functions more like a comprehensive plan.  That major difference is what separates a narrow-focused traditional plan that addresses last century’s problems from a more comprehensive, integrated plan that tackles 21st Century challenges of sustainability that all cities will invariably face.  Greening plans should not limit their focus to parks, community gardens, corridor beautification, and single-purpose vacant land strategies.  Food, urban form, transportation, economic development, environmental sustainability, energy, and social issues are critical challenges of the 21st Century and beyond.  Further, those issues form an intricate web within which any one issue relates with all others.  A more comprehensive greening plan not only tackles the challenges, but it also allows planners and decision makers to see before them the relationships between the challenges and facilitates more integrated planning.


Let’s look at some elements of the Rochester plan.  Project Green advocates for community gardens, but it stops short on taking the idea further.  There is no reason why there shouldn’t be a more detailed, longer-term plan on scaling the idea into urban agriculture that serves as part of an economic and workforce development strategy, in addition to localized food production.  The plan does a good job on proposing the historic streetcar lines as future green corridors, but it fails to advance the full potential of the idea.  Future commitments for major green corridors are toward bicycle and pedestrian facilities, aesthetics, and stormwater management, and those are good commitments.  But how do the future urban form and the mix of land uses relate to those corridors?  Should density be clustered around those corridors to maximize the use and investments?  As for economic development, there is not a section that speaks at length about the goals and separates potential strategies into manageable phases.


The Rochester plan notes, “It is…an occasion to lay the foundation for the next 175 years.”  There is not much of a foundation with such a conservative, narrow-focused plan that aims not for the stars but for the hills.


If we are going to plan for the future, then let it be more comprehensive, integrated, and meaningful planning to tackle the core issues of the 21st Century and beyond.





Read about Leaner, Greener Detroit at  The Rochester plan, once it has been made public, will have a link from here.


I recently stumbled across a fantastic plot of community gardens only blocks away from our Old Town Alexandria campus, near the Potomac river along a greenway adjoining the George Washington Bridge. Given it was late November, I was blown away by the green and well-maintained condition of this dense collection of gardens (see images right). Upon asking a busy gardener as to details about the garden, she informed me that the sites were part of a system run by the Department of the Interior that allowed locals to essentially rent out spaces for a minimal fee that covered water supplied. She estimated that 60 different “families” had and maintained spaces within the area (that couldn’t be more than a couple of acres – see aerial image right) and that many more people were on a waiting list. This example was different to what might be applicable to shrinking cities for several reasons, including the demographic difference of being a highly affluent area primarily made up of townhouses, but such a template is adaptable to almost any urban community (including Cleveland) to accomplish a multitude of benefits.

Community gardens’ benefits to the health and well being of local neighborhoods, as well as to the natural environment, are diverse and are well outlined in Lindsay’s two posts about Flint. This example brought a couple of additional benefits into light that would be pertinent to a shrinking city, well planned community gardens are able to:

  1. Create a way to use public green space that is self-maintained, taking away the concern of community development groups of who will maintain, or pay to maintain, public parks.
  2. A sought-after community garden like the one in Old Town Alexandria offers a goal for the education-focused gardens in places like Slavic Village in Cleveland to aspire to. Once community members have the skills and drive to garden for themselves, local benefits amplify.
  3. A great way to protect property vulnerable to flooding. This is a great justification of gardens in the floodplain where often the soil is better, slopes are more flat and alternative uses are limited.

Strategic placement of these gardens is essential to ensure they serve areas with the most need and potential demand. I think that Lindsay’s suggestion of orchards is a great expansion that could easily be incorporated into such a template. It is also critical to choose areas that serve multiple benefits, more specifically the environmental benefit of protecting the flood plain. This benefit (#3 above) ties into the greater goals of  Reimagining Cleveland and addresses greater regional goals that extend to addressing climate change that I will touch on in later posts. This is yet another example of how creative use of vacant or underutilized property in shrinking cities can serve as a template for cities more universally and vice versa.

I have not yet been able to link to expand on the details of these projects by the Dept of Interior, but will be sure to share it if I do. A very similar local example to check out is Baltimore’s “City Farms” program, began in 1978 that now offers 640 plots for urban gardeners.

There was a great story in The New York Times last week about neighbors in Flint, Michigan who transformed vacant lots into a vegetable garden and fruit orchard. And in turn, this garden has inspired them to revive their community.

The article touches upon several themes related to a ‘Shrinking City.’

Loss of manufacturing jobs – Flint suffered the loss of 70,000 jobs at General Motors; presently the city’s unemployment rate is about 25%.

Landbanking – the Genesee County Land Bank acquires foreclosed properties in Flint and throughout the rest of the county, then coordinates the reuse of abandoned buildings and vacant lots. In 2005, the Land Bank gave permission for this garden to be planted.

Returning land to productive use – neighbors removed litter and debris, and cleared the land to make way for the garden. According to the article, “The [garden] is really 10 contiguous lots where a row of houses once stood.”

Sustainability – The garden has improved the food security of this neighborhood by providing fresh, locally grown produce. Those who tend the garden reap the harvest, and they often also give food to neighbors in need. And now, Harry Ryan – who spearheaded the garden effort – is looking to further green the neighborhood by building a power-generating windmill in the garden.

Patchwork of decline and growth – Like many shrinking cities, some areas of Flint are thriving. Downtown Flint – just five miles away – has regained its vitality with several new commercial and residential developments.

All-in-all, it’s a heart-warming story about how a garden is helping to reverse the cycle of decline this neighborhood. The garden has rekindled a sense of community pride; neighbors have since pitched in to mow unkempt lawns and unearth sidewalks, because as one resident put it, “It needs to be done.”

Read the full story here, and also check out the related slide show.